The Beauty of Sylvie

As she danced, the image of a river came to her. A river branching into multiples of itself, no longer a single stream but a delta. And if her life were such a delta she might let the flow take her in a direction far from the current she was in now.”

So begins our adventures with Sylvie, the wildly engaging, funny and flawed protagonist of the award- winning If Sylive Had Nine Lives, a novel by Saskatoon’s Leona Theis, published by Freehand Books.

Playing with structure, plot and voice, Theis takes us on a raft ride down the what-if streams of a life. At times hilarious, in others poignant, each chapter of this novel is a reflection on the choices a person could have made, should have made, forgot to make or fell into. From an almost-cancelled marriage to falling for an old flame; a sister she mocks to an aunt who picks her up at each failed turn, these stories haunt with the notion that one moment, one decision can affect a lifetime.

Sylvie is fervently human as are the characters surrounding her and the world they act upon and which impacts upon them. A master of language, Theis renders these stories in prose that makes you catch your breath, makes you want to read that sentence or paragraph one more time, the beauty of word choice and image filling the reader with longing, joy or laughter.

I should have written this review long ago, but better late than never. Read Sylvie!

To Touch the Earth

(In this time of pandemic, when travel seems a distant memory, I thought I’d share this piece (edited for length) I wrote last year for Freelance, a Publication of Saskatchewan Writers Guild)

Once upon a time, in a far-away land I knew nothing about….

Many of us write stories and poems set in unfamiliar cities or cultures, geographies, or climates. And many of these we can successfully imagine or research from the comfort of our home and computer. But if a writer’s work is set in a place truly foreign to them, travel might be considered an essential act of research.

The beauty of Prambanan Temple

It took a while to fully appreciate the impact of my trip to Java, Indonesia for the novel I recently finished. Loosely based on my dad’s time with Dutch forces in the East Indies at the end of the Second World War, the story explores the journey of a young man finally released from Nazi occupation only to be drafted and sent to reclaim the colony from an Indonesian Independence movement begun under Japanese occupation. Yes, it’s complicated. Yes, it’s taken months, or shall I admit, years, of research. And some enlightening travel.

With gratitude for Saskatchewan Arts Board funding, I embarked on a month-long wander of Java in the summer of 2016. I’d thought the novel was about two-thirds finished—how wrong I was.  Trip notes and photographs became reference points and memory aids. Add a few strokes of the colourful Bahasa Indonesia I’d learned, and the story came alive, burgeoning with the sights and sounds of cities drenched in history and heat, the dense smells of the jungle, the sing-song of Javanese voices, and the cultural nuances of a place imbued with river myth and temple story. Setting and characters, themes and plot—the impacts were enormous.

A fish market in Surabaya

Up until the trip, I’d thought myself a bit of a fraud trying to write the story without having set foot in the country. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with sensory and cultural information. How to use it? How to keep it from overwhelming the story? The joy at having a foreign world opened up to me, became the challenge of deciphering the copious notes I’d taken, choosing which experiences were relevant to the story, and capturing it all in words. Turns out, the challenge was not unique to me.

When Man Booker-nominated author, Alison Pick, started research for her novel, Strangers with the Same Dream, she started where we all do. “I’m a big believer in the internet,” she says. “But it doesn’t give you the colour of the light, the landscape, and geography. It doesn’t allow you to feel the setting of one hundred years ago. I was given a sense of context to be physically in the setting and to have a visceral reaction to it.”

For her book about Jewish pioneers trying to create a utopian kibbutz , a communal settlement in what would later become Israel, Pick explored letters and diaries found in the archives at Kibbutz Ein Harod in Israel where she traveled several times over two and a half years, on a Chalmers Arts Fellowship.

“I was less the stereotype of an artist who is inspired by the place. My trip was more clinical and fact-finding,” she says. Pick spent the bulk of her time with a translator who helped her to sort through mostly unpublished documents. “I came away with a sense of the emotional tenor, the atmosphere of the time and place… I was able to inform the fictional characters with real events and people.”

Yes, yes, and yes; my experience too. But unlike me, Pick went to Israel early in the project. She believes the ideal time for travel research depends on what the book is and what the writer is looking for, but going earlier is likely better.

I’m of two minds on that one. Because I’d written so much of the book I knew exactly what I needed/wanted to see when I went to Indonesia, and planned accordingly, visiting cities important to the history I was trying to portray—a colonial-style coffee plantation, the jungle. But had I gone earlier, perhaps I’d have been more open to experiences I hadn’t anticipated or wasn’t looking for that might have impacted the plot itself.  Hindsight, gift, or curse?

Because poets do things differently, I thought I’d asked Saskatchewan’s own Tracy Hamon for her thoughts on travel research. Her 2014 book of poems, Red Curls, follows the life and work of Austrian artist Egon Schiele and his relationship with mistress/model Valerie Neuzil. A little more than a third into the writing, she traveled to Austria and the Czech Republic to see what inspired Schiele’s work.

Hamon explored museums, galleries, and art centers. In Vienna and Czesky Krumlov she walked past the exact scenes recorded in Schiele’s paintings, wandered Tulln where he grew up and his father worked the trains, retraced the artist’s steps to where he’d watched his orphan muses or enjoyed the gardens.

“It wasn’t just about the artwork and responding to it. I grew weary of that and started responding to the places he lived and the sights he’d painted, their texture and atmosphere,” she says. “I don’t think I could have finished that book and given it what it needed if I hadn’t gone there. I didn’t have the vision of the book and that trip helped me to shape the manuscript into what it became.”

The EloProgo River near Borobudur

While I didn’t have access to much Indonesian archival material, I could imagine the historical drama by paying attention to the Javanese people, how they reacted to the Belanda,who’d come to visit (I am a Canadian child of Dutch immigrants) and by asking myself questions about my own biases and assumptions. I vividly recall watching a toddler sit in the shade of bamboo and teak, looking out over a tumbling river as he gummed the banana his mother gave him. And I wondered at the impact of the jungle on his future world view. How different from my novel’s protagonist, raised by the streetcar’s bell and tick of a clock. Why, at first, was the muezzin’s 5:00 a.m. call to prayer annoying, and then hauntingly beautiful only after I’d met those who rose at dawn to pray? Why did I initially assume my host uneducated or the batik seller poor, neither of which were true?

These are hard questions – sometimes mortifying – but necessary questions. As Alain De Botton writes in The Art of Travel, “A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making its first appearance: that I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”

In order to build a plausible plot and believable characters, a writer needs to know as much about the angle from which their writing comes as what they are writing about. And that, perhaps, was the biggest lesson of my travel; to see things as they were, not how I imagined them to be. That, and just how god-like and angry a rumbling volcano can sound when one is perched at its lip looking down into its cavernous sulfur-belching mouth. But I digress.

And there’s another tip. Not everything you see or experience will be useful to your writing. It can’t be. “Your main allegiance is to the book,” says Pick. “So that may mean not including every person or place or event from your travels. You might think you have to tell it exactly as it was. But you should be more pre-occupied with how the material serves the story.”

So important; serve the story. My volcano experience was astounding, but, try as I might, I couldn’t find a place for it in the novel. Another darling killed.

Despite different intentions, different approaches, different outcomes, all three writers  agree we could not have written the same book, captured the places and people, imagined the stories and poems without having touched the earth where our characters walked. Well-planned travel, approached with an open mind and attention to the needs of the story, is truly a gift to yourself and your work as a writer.  

How else could I have found words to describe the doors of warehouses yawning open over the sewage filled canals in the port of Surabaya. Or pillars of sky-blue barrels and bamboo baskets waiting to be filled with fish for the market. Or the intelligent eyes of a woman crouched in a narrow street shaving coconut into a basket and surrounded by stalks of pungent lemongrass and brightly colored peppers. I don’t feel like a fraud anymore, my words given a little authenticity because I was there too.

What the Volcano Knows

The volcano knows I am hot and tired. And it knows I am afraid. This grumbling thing, spewing smoke thick as winter fog, its sulfurous gases stinging my eyes and burning my nose. But it knows too, that in spite of my fear, I am drawn to follow the path scarred into the gray rock by its ancient molten lava, behind us clouds hanging low over the valley, ahead a steep incline to its fiery lip. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The “Sea of Sand”

I didn’t start out so determined. But look at it there in the distance. Mount Bromo. How could a person resist walking across the Lautan Pasir, that ‘Sea of Sand’ stretching from its base? The cauldron- like expanse contains a number of active and dead volcanic mountains, only a few jeep tracks and scrubby shrubs to break it up.

The volcano wizards stop tourists at the nearby mountain village of Cemoro Lawang if the science says an eruption is imminent. Or so we’re told. But my sister and I, self-described intrepid Canadian dorks, see only Tenggerese horsemen with their small hardy mounts offering us a ride we must surely want. And jeep owners peering seductively over their knockoff Ray-bans tempting us to roar off with them.

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Tenggerese horsemen

Not easily seduced by men in balaclavas (protection from the sulfur and dust), we choose the forty-five minute walk. Down the steep grade of a hill shaded by jungle trees, down and down and out onto the sun-baked lava sea where a lone man schilling peanuts and lizard-skinned salak fruit makes his way toward us, smiling broadly and encouraging us to buy his wares. Wilma dubs him the Bedouin peanut man, and we walk, our clothes and skin darkening with the fine ash kicked up by an increasing wind. The salak is a surprising blend; firm like apple, sweet like coconut.

Salak fruit

It’s hard to describe such a place. Desolate, beautiful, stark, impressive; a scene of intensity, a record of the power of the elements. There’s a reason the volcano is considered a god to many Javanese who still make annual pilgrimages to throw offerings of flowers, and rice, plastic garlands and hand written poems into the mouth of the beast.

Looking back

And no mistake, Bromo sounds like a beast. As we approach its base, the low grumbling becomes a freight train’s roar, now distant, now near, a great belching and then a murmur. Alive. And perhaps not too happy about it. It gives us pause, but we are here, we can’t stop, the last thirty meters an incline so steep we haul ourselves up by clinging to a handrail built alongside stone steps slippery with years of ash and feet.

And the summit. A small rail reaches only to the knees, one slip and we’d tumble into the yellow crater, its mouth an abyss deep into the earth. I am stunned out of fear by its raw beauty; the power, the sound, the force of it. But somehow, despite all its intensity, it no longer feels malevolent. Looking down into the bowels of the earth, I recognize Mount Bromo has no agenda, no desires, no need for our adoration or worhsip. It just is. And I am. Puny beside its growling immensity, but less afraid because none of it is personal. It knows nothing of me, cares less. I am simply irrelevant, a fact that becomes strangely comforting, instantly humbling. And that, perhaps, is the only thing both the volcano and I will ever need to know.

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